1 CE and before

Plays

Elektra (Euripides)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Elektra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Elektra.

Just like Sophocles, Euripides was inspired by Aeschylus's great tragic cycle, the Oresteia. Unlike Sophocles (whose focus was a battered and vilified victim of circumstance, fully justified in seeking revenge), Euripides paints a character with a more confused mindset, one who cannot be fully trusted, not even by her returning twin and brother-in-arms. Euripides allows no easy judgement, forcing his audience to pick over the bones of a moral dilemma, as bloody as it is tragic.

Eumenides (Play Three from The Oresteia)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, together with its aftermath. The name derives from the character Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who sets out to avenge his father's murder. The three plays – Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation-Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) – were originally accompanied in performance by a satyr play, Proteus, now lost. The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.

This translation by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton is based on the Oxford text (to which the line numbers refer). It follows a distinction in the original text between the lines spoken by the characters (which are mostly composed in iambics), and those spoken by the Chorus (which adopt a much freer lyric verse); here, the lyric passages belonging to the Chorus are identified by the use of initial capital letters for each new line. In addition, various expressions such as io, pheu, oimoi and others have been left transliterated from the original Greek, being (in the words of the translators) 'indications of grief rather than actual words'.

The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

The second play, Choephori, deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father.

In the final part, Eumenides, Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry to decide whether Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra makes him guilty of the crime of murder.

The Eunuch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Phaedria has been thrown out of his lover Thais's house. And, to add insult to injury, he had paid for his right to be there. He doesn't know what he should do – he fears losing his place in the pecking order to his rival Thraso – and has only his trusted companion, and slave, Parmeno, for advice. Parmeno, who knows what freedoms can be bought with gold, suggests a gift: a slave girl, and a Eunuch.

But when Phaedria's brother Chaerea falls in love with another girl (a gift from Thraso hoping to woo Thais), he conspires to have himself substituted for the Eunuch, and placed inside Thais's house, causing untold complications for Thais, Phaedria and, not least, himself.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'the comedy in Terence is allowed to revolve around the discomfiture of those who lose their dignity from jealousy, greed, lust, envy, any or all, in fact, of the seven deadly sins. The initial transgressions are not condoned but where would comedy be without human frailty?'

Frogs

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Losing all faith in humanity, and their basest incarnation, the tragedians, Dionysos, god of the theatre, vows to go to the underworld to revive the greatest tragedian of all, the barely cold Euripides, who had died the year before.

Enlisting his servant Xanthias, and asking his half brother Herakles for directions, Dionysos sets off to Hades' Halls, only to find Euripides engaged in a contest with Aeschylus, as to who was the greatest of them all. Dionysos sets himself the task of judging their weighty words, but more often than not these tragedians make him the butt of their jokes.

Described in his introduction by translator Kenneth McLeish as 'one of [Aristophanes'] most brilliant comedies', Frogs is a wonderful mix of the living and the dead, of the tragic and the comic.

The Haunted House

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Philolaches is a good for nothing so-and-so: he seems to live purely to spend his father's cash, or, when he can't get it, to borrow against it. Everything he loves is paid for by someone else's efforts, including the lady of his dreams, ex-courtesan Philematium. Now while his father is away earning money, Philolaches is spending it all on one big house party.

But when his father returns unexpectedly, Philolaches is stumped. Luckily, his trusty slave Tranio has a plan: he bundles his master's guests into a closet, and distracts the father with a tall tale that the house his haunted. As foolish as Philolaches is, so is Tranio quick-witted, building yarn upon fib upon lie to keep his master's father in the dark.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that The Haunted House 'is a play with strong narrative and a number of stock characters. Beyond that, it exemplifies the Plautine plot about family relationship, where the driving factor in life is less love than money: who has it – a wealthy father; who is spending it – a wastrel son; who wants it – who doesn't?'

Hecuba (trans. Harrison)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

The first great war between the east and west is over. Hecuba, once queen of Troy, is widowed and enslaved by the conquering Greeks. When her captors demand that her daughter be sacrificed in honour of the great warrior Achilles, and she finds her only surviving son murdered, her mourning turns to a hunger for retribution.

A vital examination of the psychology of the powerful and the powerless in time of conflict, Euripides’ Hecuba, in this translation by Tony Harrison, premiered at the Albery Theatre in March 2005 as part of the RSC’s London season.

© Tony Harrison, 2005

Herakles

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

While the great Greek hero Herakles was in the underworld completing his divinely ordained labours, above ground, a rival king, Lykos, was busy plotting to murder Herakles' living mortal family. Instead, Herakles' returns just in time to kill Lykos.

This is a short-lived redemption, however; after the murder of Lykos, Herakles' descends into madness and murders his own offspring, a madness initiated by an angry Hera, the goddess protector of Lykos.

Only the appeal of the legendary king of Athens, Theseus, can bring Herakles back to sanity again, a sanity he reaches only to be realise his actions and be faced with a lifetime of heartbreak and an empty future ahead of him.

In his introduction, editor J. Michael Walton writers that 'Herakles is the most underrated of all Greek tragedies. Translator Kenneth McLeish adds: 'As so often, Euripides offered his audience an experience on two entirely different levels: a fast-moving, continuously intriguing theatrical entertainment, and an examination of knotty philosophical and theological questions, teased out in irony and paradox, and (characteristically) left at the end of the play unresolved.’

Herakles' Children

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Herakles' Children is described in the introduction by translator Kenneth McLeish as dramatising 'a section of the Herakles myth which seems to explain how initial enmity between Athens and the Pelopennesian state of Argos was, at some remote period of mythological time, replaced by alliance. After Herakles' ascension from earth to Olympos, his mortal rival King Eurystheus of Argos (who had devised his Labours) was afraid that Herakles' sons might grow up to contest the throne. He harried them from town to town across Greece, demanding that they be returned to Argos on pain of invasion. The play takes place after the children, led by Herakles' aged mother Alkmene and his equally decrepit nephew and former companion Iolaos, take refuge in Marathon, a town in Attika not far from Athens.'

The Argives then declare war on Marathon and the Athenians, a war whose victory is underwritten for the Athenians by the decision of Herakles' daughter Makaria, to allow herself to be sacrificed to the gods.

The subsequent defeat of the Argives, and the punishment of Eurystheus, defines the second half of the play, which was first produced some time between 430 and 427 BC, contemporaneously with Euripides' other great plays Hippolytos and Medea.

Hippolytos (trans. McLeish)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Euripides' play tells the story of Phaidra's love for her step-son Hippolytos, Theseus's illegitimate son, a man so devoted to his chastity and the cult of Artemis that he spurns the goddess of love Aphrodite. To return the insult, she condemns him via his stepmother's passion, causing the subsequent fall of the royal house.

In his introduction, editor J. Michael Walton writes: 'However priggish or puritanical Hippolytos may seem, Aphrodite's wholesale destruction of the household is pre-planned and calculated to affect everyone within range. Nor is this some sudden whim. It is two years since she contrived for Phaidra first to see and fall in love with Hippolytos. At the far end of the play, Theseus receives news from the Messenger of his son's accident and asks for the dying Hippolytos to be brought in for him to gloat over. Before his attendants can fetch the litter Artemis appears to accuse Theseus of murdering his son. Despite her affection for Hippolytos, she confesses to declining to become involved because "We have an agreement in Heaven: Never interfere with other gods' decisions" (ll. 1328–9). The mortally injured Hippolytos is then carried in and a reconciliation engineered with Theseus. Artemis consoles Hippolytos in a desultory sort of way before leaving so as not to be defiled by having someone die in her presence. As a Parthian shot to confirm a general disdain for human affairs it is telling and chilling.'A play that at once cautions people not to disregard the strength of the divine, but also illustrates the futility of trying to second-guess its intention, Hippolytos is an astonishing and disturbing tragedy.

Hippolytus (trans. Wertenbaker)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Furious that Prince Hippolytus will not worship her, Aphrodite, goddess of love, seeks revenge. Infecting Hippolytus' stepmother, Phaedra, with an overpowering desire for him, Aphrodite's retribution will sweep both prince and queen to a brutal end.

A secret torment

Storms through her

Tosses her into that black harbour

Death.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's translation of Euripides' tragedy Hippolytus premiered at Riverside Studios, London, in February, 2009 in a production by Temple Theatre.